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Should you buy Vista Ultimate?

Date: January 22, 2007
Author(s): Rob Williams

With the Vista launch imminent, you may be wondering what version you should be buying. Thanks to the four primary versions available, this is no easy task. Many will be swaying towards the Ultimate Edition, but should you save your cash?



Introduction


Vista is right around the corner after years of our incessant waiting. This is not an article to explain why you need Vista, because as it stands nobody “needs” it. In the future, when DirectX 10 and Vista-specific software is commonplace, that will be the time when the move will become more of a requirement. Until then, Vista is just a new version of Windows pimped up with a fresh coat of paint. This is an article to cater to those who -are- going to buy Vista regardless of whether they need it or not.

Although there are 8 different versions (at least), only four are targeted to the regular consumer. Home Basic is the barebones version that doesn’t include any of the special extras. Business is targeted for that specific audience but may be of interest to those who want better security but don’t require some of the more “fun” add-ons such as Media Center and Solitaire.

In this article though, I will be comparing Ultimate to what will likely be the most common version of Vista, Home Premium. As it stands, Home Premium will retail for $239USD while Ultimate will for $399. This is a huge price differential and the reason I became inspired to write this article. Its no secret… Ultimate is packed. It includes everything the three other versions do, with the addition of BitLocker. But as I examined things, I came to the conclusion that a fair percentage of people who shell out the extra $160 for the Ultimate Edition may not even use most of the extra features that are available.

Home Premium versus Ultimate

Microsoft has done a good job of clearly explaining the differences between versions on their website, so I had an idea of what to look for. Quickly referring to that list, you can see that Home Premium is essentially what Windows XP MCE was, since it includes the full media center. The prime difference between Home Premium and Ultimate is that the latter includes better security tools and business apps.

What Home Premium does include assures me that it is indeed worth the $239USD price tag. I am not saying I am particularly pleased with Vista overall, because I have run into a good share of problems in the past few months since the RTM became available. The fact that it includes all of the games, media center and new Vista core programs such as Meeting Space helps it become a feature-rich OS out of the box. Granted we are now in 2007, but the Windows XP installation was incredibly bland. Vista seems to make up for this.

Of course, I am not getting into what Ultimate has that Home Premium doesn’t, so let’s soar through what you -would- be missing if you don’t get the $399 edition.

BitLocker Drive Encryption

BitLocker is a key feature for the Ultimate and Enterprise editions; You cannot get them in the other versions at all. Because of this, it may be the prime reason you would want to slam down that extra cash, but is it worth it? Sadly, I wish I was able to tell you. I spent a good four hours working with BitLocker, or rather working to get it functional. To no avail.

BitLocker is a program designed to ease the minds of corporate titans everywhere. How often do we hear news of an important laptop being stolen? At least twice a week. That’s where BitLocker comes in. It’s a full file system encryption program that locks up the drive entirely when the computer is shut off. That’s where things become interesting. In order to access Windows or the data, you -need- the key that coincides with the drive. When you first set up BitLocker, you will have the ability to save this key to a thumb drive. So, you plug in your thumb drive and are good to go. If you boot up without the key however, the computer will be completely non-functional, at least until another hard drive is installed, at which point you’d lose your data.

There are big pluses to this, but also downsides. Imagine for a second that you lost your thumb drive and your computer became completely inoperable. On the other side of the coin though, I don’t see this technology being designed for home users, but rather businesses. If a laptop gets stolen, then the data is safe. Not just their data, but OUR data most times. If a laptop or thumb drive is lost/stolen, then a new laptop could be purchased and the databases re-synced.

In a home scenario, a user would have to back up constantly to an external drive, which would somewhat defeat the purpose since that unencrypted hard drive could as easily become stolen like the rest of the computer.

The reason I can’t comment on the performance or ease of use is that I could not get BitLocker to function on the two computers I tested it on. I believe this is due to the fact that neither BIOS supported TPM which BitLocker requires. That’s why I am led to believe that this technology is directly targeted to laptops where such features are standard in a proprietary BIOS.

One thing you will want to realize is that if your BIOS does support TPM and you are ready to make the BitLocker leap, you will need to read through a LOT of documentation. There will be a fair amount of tweaking and partition creation. You would be wise to understand exactly how it works or else you may screw yourself over.



Advanced Backup Capabilities


Vista Ultimate boasts the fact that it has better security features than the other versions, except Business and Enterprise which contain the same general sets of tools. While all versions of Vista contain a simple file backup tool, Ultimate has the ability to backup the entire computer. This includes your files, applications, games, registry entries and so forth. The great thing about this though, is that it doesn’t -only- backup your primary operating system. If you have other versions of Vista installed or Windows XP, you will have the option to back those up as well.

You are supposed to run this tool after a fresh install once your main slew of applications are installed. That way, you have a completely clean system that’s problem free. You do have the ability to back up your PC like this in the future, but you shouldn’t overwrite the original backup, as your newer backup may contain the same potential virus or data corruption.

To give a test, I backed up both my Windows XP and primary Vista installation. The resulting backup took around 8GB, but this would be higher had these not been fresh installations. The process took around 6 minutes, not too bad for that amount of data. After months of use with many documents, this process could easily take more than an hour or two.

Depending on where you decided to save the backup, Vista will catalog the computer and split the backup into various archives, each one containing a certain part of the computer, ie: the registry. There will also be a huge archive for each of the installations you are backing up. My Windows XP archive was 1.5GB while Vista Ultimate was just over 5GB.


Above – Ultimate (Left) / Home Premium (Right)

Given the fact that I had multiple versions of Windows installed on a single hard drive, I didn’t want to perform a more in-depth test in case anything went awry. What I did do though, was reboot into my Windows XP installation and delete most of my registry. I exported the sections I removed in case the restore didn’t work. In addition, I also installed Need for Speed: Carbon under the Vista installation to see if it would remain there after the restore.

To proceed with a restore, you first need to use the original installation disc and choose “Repair this computer” at the initial menu. You then need to click the installation you want fixed and after messing around through some menus, you can find the backup you want. At this point, it will tell you when the backup was created and what hard drives it affects. After agreeing to the restore and waiting about 5 minutes, the entire process is complete.

Happily, the restore process went completely smooth and the system was reverted to the same state it was when I created the backup. The incredibly screwed up Windows XP installation had all the registry entries restored and worked well. The same goes for the Vista install… the game was not there anymore. Overall, I’m happy to report great experiences with this.

There’s another thing to consider as well. Take a scenario where you have a 250GB hard drive with a WinXP and Vista partition, and then it fails. You upgrade to a 750GB drive and want to restore that backup. During the restore process, it will give you an option to format the entire drive and recreate the same sized partitions that were there before. This is to keep things congruent, but you must resize or merge the remaining space after the restore.

I only tested a rather simple test, but I don’t have any doubt that it will work well in any situation as long as you keep the backup in a safe place. That’s another thing to consider. It would be foolish to store this all-important backup on the same hard drive. If it crashes, you basically wasted your time.



Ultimate Extras


Remember the classic Plus! packs that Microsoft released alongside a launch of their new OS? The Plus! pack with XP was rather lackluster and didn’t warrant a purchase as far as I am concerned. What it did include though were a few additional mini-games, themes and other miscellaneous extras. Microsoft scrapped this idea with Vista, but instead are offering such bonuses to those who handed over their hard-earned cash for the Ultimate edition.

There are currently no Extras available, but Hold ‘Em Poker and a new application called DreamScene (Desktop video overlay) will be at launch. Past this, there is no telling exactly what we can expect from the Extras or whether or not it will be worth your time. Looking into the “About Ultimate Extras” screen, it will list off potential benefits that will come to you over time. First listed is cutting edge programs, which could include updated/new utilities or even games.

Innovative services is the second mentioned, but I’m unsure exactly what they mean by this. These could end up being special literal services that run on your system to help better performance, or maybe Microsoft has a special online suite of products on the way for Ultimate users. The last mention is the one that surprises me the most… tutorials. “Get the most out of Windows Vista Ultimate from tutorials that are available only through Windows Ultimate Extras.” Enough said.

Because none of these Extras are available through the RTM version of Ultimate at this time, it’s hard to comment on the usefulness and also the value that they can provide. This is a feature that Microsoft is really trying to push with Ultimate however, so it’s likely to blossom over time. In the future, I hope to see new themes, wallpapers and -good- games being released this way. If you are to shell out an additional $160 for this edition, it would be nice to reap the rewards. Although, I wouldn’t expect that much from it directly at launch.

Miscellaneous Applications

There may be a list of programs that each version of Vista has, but I couldn’t find it. So instead, I had one computer running Ultimate and the other running Home Premium and explored both at the same time to find the differences. I started with the Start Menu, to see what programs were missing in the Home Premium edition. There were only two primary menu entries that I found missing in the Home Premium edition. This is not to say that a few select applications act differently in each version though, like the Backup tool did.

Windows Fax and Scan

Windows Fax and Scan is the first application I found that Home Premium lacked. You can tell by the title what the main purpose of the program is but as simple as it sounds, it could prove quite useful if you send faxes frequently. The main GUI resembles Windows Mail to some degree and acts similar as well.

Sending a fax is as simple as scanning the document and then sending it like an e-mail. You have the option to send via your Modem or through a remote server. Both of these options can be configured the first time you try to send a fax. You can also leave the application running to receive faxes as they come in. Since I do not have a Fax machine, I was unable to give the program a good test. However, I assume that you can still receive faxes at a later date if your computer is off at the time, assuming that the Fax machine has a queue and doesn’t delete the scan as soon as it’s printed out.

Small Business Resources

Found under the Extras and Upgrades submenu is the Small Business Resources, which is not actually an application but rather a link. It’s hard to consider this as an Ultimate exclusive, because the website that it launches is accessible by anyone. The website assumes you are running Vista Business, which you are in a sense since you have Ultimate. It’s an online Flash tutorial telling you how to make the most out of the OS if you are a Business user, so it’s one that most people will want to check out for that purpose.

That’s all that can be said here… it launches a website. Strange to be included in a Start Menu as if it were a program, but I guess it’s better there than a link on your desktop.



Final Thoughts


As I mentioned on the first page, this article’s main goal was to compare the differences between Ultimate and Home Premium. As it stands, I still don’t believe Vista is a required upgrade by any stretch, but it’s a nice one if you want a fresh looking Windows with some notable and useful updates.

“Do I want Ultimate or Home Premium?” I hope this article helped finalize your decision. The most notable exclusives to Ultimate are the BitLocker hard drive encryption and also the advanced backup program. What I am going to do now is something that shouldn’t be quoted. If I were to split up these “extras”, this is how I would assume Microsoft values each application.

Again, please don’t quote me on the prices above. They are not endorsed by Microsoft but are my own assumptions. Truthfully, I believe all these “exclusives” are worth the value I chose. Although I didn’t have much luck with BitLocker, -if- you get it to work it would be well worth the price especially for businesses.

The advanced complete backup solution impressed me the most, however. After toying around with it for a few hours, covering a few things not mentioned in the article, I didn’t have a single issue. Unlike BitLocker, this was one application that was straight-forward and easy to understand and execute. Even if you have many Gigabytes of information to backup, the process is quite fast for both the saving and restoring.

I had fun completely screwing up my Windows XP installation. It really was to the point that it was unusable. Folders would not open and it would randomly lock up thanks to bad configurations, or lack of. But, the restore process put everything back as it was and the computer was completely usable again.

The main scenario I see from this is home users who want to have a good restore backup on hand in case their computer goes awry. The ideal situation would be to save all of your documents prior to a restore, then proceeding with the process. The complete backup solution is not going to replace your regular files backup, so you need to keep on top of it in case something bad does happen to your hard drive in the future. Backing all of your data up every two weeks is ideal, but you will always want to keep a good copy of your complete backup handy so that you can restore your PC to its original state quickly.

Although I didn’t test swapping out hardware to see how the restore would react, I don’t see it being a huge problem. I have booted up Vista with different hardware before and never had a problem. It was simply a matter of re-installing whatever drivers were needed and un-installing the defunct drivers for hardware that no longer existed. If any precautions were to be taken though, I would un-install your video drivers prior to a complete backup. The only BSOD I have dealt with in the Vista RTM was related to bad video drivers.

Backup aside, Ultimate also includes the extras that are yet to be seen but are on their way. These Extras -are- programs you are likely to make use of. There are third-party versions of some prospected software available, but the versions included in Ultimate are designed to work specifically with Vista and the Aero interface, like DreamScene for instance.

So, you still don’t know if you want Ultimate? Like I said, I am not a huge supporter of Vista although I firmly believe it’s the best version of Windows yet. My primary machine runs Linux and Vista doesn’t make me want to move back. However, it has become my main OS on my Windows specific machine and I haven’t run into any show stopping issues since installing the final release.

Consider this. Home Premium includes a -lot- of what you will want from Ultimate. For that extra $160, you are essentially paying for the better backup system and also BitLocker, which you may not even want to deal with due to complexity. The other applications are nice as well, but you may not see the benefits right away since it appears it will be a slow start.

One thing that Microsoft did right is that they allow people to upgrade their version of Vista at any time. All you do is pay the difference, not more. If you purchase Home Premium for $239 and wish to upgrade to Ultimate in the future, simply pay the extra $160 and you will have the full fledged version without feeling bad about wasting money on the original version you bought.

Don’t get me wrong however, I do believe that $400 for an OS is excessive. As it stands, each version does include a lot of software for the price though, so it’s not as though you will be completely ripped off. Me being a Linux user aside, Vista is not a complete ripoff. You will just have to ponder whether or not to save your $160 now and get Ultimate down the road, or avoid it entirely.

This is the first of a series of Vista specific articles that will be published all week long in preparation for the big launch. Stay tuned.

Jan 22, 07 Addendum: Brian Tebeau wrote in to explain another benefit to purchasing Ultimate. News.com reported last week that as a "limited time" offer, if you purchase Vista Ultimate you will gain the ability to purchase two Home Premium licenses for $50 each.

Michael Moody also writes, “You mention that tpm is a function of the bios, when in fact it’s not. TPM is an actual chip that is also on certain motherboards, and adds a level of security. It has the ability to store various pieces of data, and can even work to encrypt hard drives as well. (For instance, take a look at the Precision M65 from dell, the tpm allows the fingerprint reader to log you on to windows as well and at the BIOS screen, all with one swipe). It’s very similar to a smart card. “


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